I bought my first narrow boat in 1984 after many years of hiring boats. My trip began at Bunbury on the Shropshire Union on 19 May 1984 and I reached Northampton after 5 long, hard days passing through the centre of Birmingham including Gas Street basin (which was yet to be developed). Another long day on the Nene followed, starting at the Britannia Inn just below Northampton and finishing in time for drinks in the Chequered Skipper at Ashton where a live band was playing. As John Gagg had written in one of his canal guides there were torrents of water coming over the top gates at some of the locks. None of the locks had been electrified at the time and these included Ditchford radial arm lock which involved 148 turns of a hand wheel, once to lower the heavy bottom gate and once to open. Years later I still find it surprising that none of the endless notices on Ditchford lock state that it is the only surviving radial arm lock on the Nene.
Two days later I reached Stanground lock where to my relief I found that my 48 foot boat would just fit into Stanground lock (which at 49 foot was the shortest lock I had encountered on my travels and which was the reason I had bought a 48 foot boat in the first place). This was my first meeting with Mr Rootham (I never knew his Christian name was Alan, let alone called him that for years) and then to Ashline lock where the resident lock keeper suddenly appeared and furiously wound paddle gear of a type which I had never seen before.
From there we headed for Pondersbridge. Although I had read that this was a dead end it still came as a shock to find Bevill’s Leam pumping station right across the river and no lock to go beyond so we turned round and headed for Turves where we had been told there was a pub. The Three Horseshoes did not disappoint. There was again live music in the saloon and a games area in the public bar with table football and darts.The friendly locals were amazed to learn that we were on a long boating trip from somewhere near Chester to somewhere near Ely and happened to be dropping into their pub in Turves on the way.
There was heavy rain the next day and we set off late to find the pub at Chainbridge on the 20 Foot river which no longer existed so we continued to March and the boatyard of CT and P Fox Boatbuilders where I met Charlie Fox for the first time – I recall he sold me some stern grease in a recycled treacle tin.
We finished up that evening at Benwick. Some of the houses in the main street and many of the gravestones had clearly been badly affected by subsistence but the Five Alls pub was memorable and full. There was a live and loud organ playing in the main bar and a deafening juke box for younger people at the rear.
The following day we went to Woodwalton Fen (Great Raveley Drain) in the rain and finished that evening in the George Inn at Ramsey Forty Foot where we signed the boater’s log book kept behind the bar and warmed up by the fire. I mention in passing that Joe Bugner, former world heavyweight boxing champion, lived in the big house opposite the George around that time.
The next day was memorable for all the wrong reasons. I damaged a finger badly when I caught it under the very low Ramsey Hollow bridge soon after leaving the George. A kind motorist took me to Manea train station where I eventually caught a train to Ely and walked into Ely military hospital and received welcome and prompt treatment. Meanwhile my friends (remember this was our first visit to the Middle Level) boated along the Forty Foot river, the Sixteen Foot river and Well Creek through Salters Lode and met up with me suitably bandaged at what was then called the Black Horse at Littleport at 9.30 pm. Remember there were no mobile phones then and red phone boxes were infrequent. Often they were already being used or there was a queue outside or they were simply not working. You also needed plenty of loose change to use them. You could not simply ring for an ambulance or a taxi from the boat let alone remain in contact with my friends but we all somehow managed to meet up at the Black Horse at Littleport late that evening.
After a brief spell at the Fish and Duck marina I was fortunate to move my boat to Fox’s marina where I was able to explore the Middle Level further over the next couple of years. I then returned in 1996 where I have been ever since both in my first boat and the second Olive Emily which Fox’s built for me in 2002. I will write more about this later.
8 Oct 2023